Q: Would you say that NC State QB Philip Rivers and Virginia QB Matt Schaub more similar than dissimilar?
Groh: Very much so. I had a brief conversation with [an NFL] scout who I know well, and I was answering some of his questions about Matt [Schaub]. The comparison of the two of them [Rivers and Schaub] came up in the conversation, and I told him I thought that they were both really pretty much the same player, especially when you look at them. People are going to say that the delivery is a little bit different from each player, but when the ball is in the air, for both players, the ball is out in a hurry; they make all the throws; they throw from one hashmark to the sideline; they throw in-cuts; they throw quickly against the blitz; they both have comparable accuracy percentages over the last two years; they both are vital to the success of their team. There certainly are a great many things that they have in common.
Q: What last year's game against N.C. State a breakthrough game for your defense:
Groh: I think since that stage we've been pretty good on defense.
Q: You've talked about OLB Raymond Mann the last two weeks. Last year in the last half of the season you moved Merrill Robertson from inside to outside in place of Mann. How did Mann take it and were you curious to see how he would respond? [Mann hurt his knee in the second game last season and was not as effective the rest of the season.]
Groh: You always are in that circumstance with a player. Ray was terrific about it. I think that he was the person in the world who knew the most about how he was affected by the injury; he's the one who had it. He knew it was something he had to deal with and that he wasn't on the top of his game as a result of it. As coaches we could see what was occurring; he knew more so why because of the injury. But he just kept on working and was the same guy. I think that typified the mentality of the team at that point. He came back in the offseason the same way and everything's been on the upswing since then.
Q: But does Mann seem more instinctive this year:
Groh: Sure, but it's more turns for him. The progression of his career has been, he had to make a position change in the spring of his sophomore year [from defensive end to outside linebacker]. That was a big transitional year for him. For some players that transition goes very fast, other ones it doesn't. That was a transitional year from being a down player to being an outside linebacker with the most responsibilities of anybody in the defense. Then a game-and-a-half into his junior season he got hurt which [caused him] to miss a lot of the season. When he came back he wasn't himself. Now he's got some background in the defense and some continuity in what he's doing. He's been able to be at every practice, every game.
There are some young linebackers on the team right now, who when Ray Mann was in their circumstance was playing in the game. And then he was starting the next year at a new position. There are some young linebackers on the team right now who are redshirting. When they're in their fourth year of school as Ray is, they'll be in their redshirt junior year with another year [of eligibility]. Picture Ray if he had another year to go after this one. When you compare him to outside linebackers around the country, that's the circumstance that a lot of those guys are in.
Q: Last year you played so many true freshmen out of necessity because you needed to increase the talent level. Do you have a greater appreciation for red-shirting than you did when you came in?
Groh: There are great similarities-as I dealt with for several years [in the NFL]-between that seventh or eighth-year veteran and the rookie player. There you have the circumstance of bringing that rookie player in because he's got a high level ability, and yet you have another guy who really knows how to do his job. It's very easy not to play the young player. Usually in a lot of those NFL circumstances, sometimes the position coach needs to be given a little initiative from the head coach and the general manager, 'Look, we took this guy to play him in the games. Get him ready.' Because the great security blanket in those circumstances is to play the guy who knows what to do. They have a big advantage in that circumstance, so I think it's always a combination of guys developing an expertise at the position through his experience and then just plain high-end talent who can do things physically and make plays that even the well-versed player can't make. I think it will always be that circumstance. The difference here is that if you have a young player, because you only have him for a limited period of time, if the player's good enough to play in the game but because of those ahead of him, he's going to get so few plays as to make it worthwhile. In Darryl [Blackstock]'s case, once he got in the line-up, we knew he was going to get 600 plays, so that made it worth playing him. Darryl would have been the same talent last year had there been somebody in front of him, but if that other player had caused Darryl to play 75 plays, that wouldn't have been worth the trade-off.
Q: How much better and instinctive do you see freshman LB Ahmad Brooks now?
Groh: He's pretty instinctive. His instincts just get sharpened by the looks that he sees. That's one of the things that's a little challenging for the defensive players, particularly for linebackers, because this is not a defense that most of the teams that we play against see every week. That is, if you're playing one of the defenses that's pretty repetitive, that lots of teams play, then you can watch your opponent. Maybe they've played against it three times that year, and you can see what their favorite blocking schemes are. With us, sometimes the only tape we can look at to see the opponent against a similar scheme as ours is when they played us the year previous. There's a lot more advantages to that than there are disadvantages, because they've got one week to prepare for it and the same old ideas don't hold true, they've got to do other things. Still, almost every week, the team's got a gameplan play. This is there idea how you can cut this defense. There's a gameplan play every week that after we've seen it two, three times early in the game, then we know this is the play of choice for the game. We have to kind of coach the players on the sideline about it. That's the thing with Ahmad [Brooks] and Kai [Parham] in there. They're seeing one of those new gameplan plays-usually designed to effect them more than anyone else-in every game. There's not an endless list of those creations. As they go through it after a while, then they will have seen pretty much most of what the difficult plays are. Then they'll just be repeating.
Q: Did you make your decision about who would punt for the Troy State game pre-game?
Groh: Well I watched both the kickers kick in the pre-game. That was just one more look after a week of looking at both the punters. I had decided pretty early in the week that both of the players would kick in the game [Tom Hagan and Noah Greenbaum].
Q: Does Wali Lundy get his job back because he's healthy now, or has Alvin Pearman earned the right to continue to play?
Groh: We'll use them both now. Alvin certainly has done remarkably well, and he's going to continue to get his turns. I think that particularly down at home stretch, at this time of year, this will keep both of them a little bit fresher. One of the things that happens a lot of times at this time of year through fatigue, sometimes the fields get a little heavier through weather, players aren't as loose because of cold. If you get to that, the game slows down. If we could keep the players from doing that themselves through the fatigue that often accompanies running backs, that would be to our advantage. Actually I thought that the guy who looked like the fastest player on the field the other day was [Wali] Lundy. That had something to do with the fact that he had two weeks' worth of rested legs. We would have liked to have had him for the end of the Clemson game, for the Florida State game, for the part of the game he wasn't in the other day, but that's the downside of it. The good news of it now is that he comes back completely ready to go and with a two-and-a-half week rest on his legs so he ought to have a lot of juice in him now.
Q: Does the fact that Philip Rivers and Matt Schaub are similar help your team practice in preparation for NC State?
Groh: I'd say that both teams for four years now have seen the kind of ball in the air that they're going to see a lot on Saturday. It won't be any revelation to them that the ball can get there with the accuracy and the timing and the velocity that it does. I think both teams will be accustomed to seeing that. It'll work both ways obviously. If both of these quarterbacks come out of this game having completed 70 percent of their passes, then it's going to be a long game. I'm sure each team is going to try and get each team's completion percentage down.
Q: Is NC State dramatically different without RB T.A. McLendon?
Groh: Their style of play is more like it was two years ago before they had McLendon. He's obviously an excellent, excellent back, one of those kind of backs you can build your running game around. State was a lot more committed to the run last year. He was as vital to their team as the acquisition of [Michael] Johnson and [Wali] Lundy and the development of [Alvin] Pearman were to our team. That is, really the year before, without [Antwoine} Womack, we really didn't have anyone who asserted himself as a really legitimate threat. That's why the acquisition of Michael [Johnson] and Wali [Lundy] were so important to us and then Alvin [Pearman]'s development. When you have those kind of backs, it allows you to reasonably make the commitment to running the ball. They [N.C. State] were the same way. They went through a committee of players over there; all of them did nice things, but none of them were one of those 'stand out' running backs. When McLendon came on the scene with obvious superior ability, they were really able to commit to it. In his absence, they're kind of back where they were before. A lot of these plays that get recorded as pass plays really serve the same effect as if they were runs-they're just a little bit longer hand-offs.
Q: FB Kase Luzar isn't a guy who has a lot of statistics, but you once called him the "glue." Is he the kind of guy a team needs, who's not concerned with getting a lot of attention, but is concerned about blocking and doing the little things?
Groh: I think very much so. That's what that position requires-the Jon Ritchies of the world.
Q: How much tight end did Luzar play Saturday in place of injured Patrick Estes?
Groh: That was his [original] position. He played there as a sophomore so he has got a good background in it. He played a number of snaps at it the other day, snaps that would have gone to Patrick [Estes].
Q: Can you give a comment about the ACC race? Florida State is atop the standings, but then there are several teams with 2-3 losses. In the last month, the season for all of these teams is yet to be written.
Groh: Very much so. Every team is looking at the same thing. I think most of the teams in this little horserace have a challenging November in front of them. It's very similar to the circumstance we faced last year. We understand what is necessary and we understand what it takes. We just have to see if we're up to it again this time.
Q: Can you comment on the performance of WR and standout special teams player Ryan Sawyer during the Troy State game?
Groh: It was probably his best game since he's been here. He did some really good things catching the ball, adjusting his routes a little bit, continued to do a terrific job on special teams for us. Here's a guy who over the course of two years, when he's finished with this season, he'll have played about 600 plays of special teams. That's a tremendous amount. He's on every unit except field goal protection where he's just a little undersized for that. He does all of that in every game, in addition to all the plays he takes from regular. He's a tremendously dependable player in every job that he does. You can depend upon him to do it the way it was presented to him. He's a very significant guy for us.
Q: Is Jermaine Hardy playing the way you would want as a safety?
Groh: Yeah. I think for a first-year safety, his progress has been very good. He's very interested in it. He's up there all the time preparing himself. I think his play is reflective of his preparation. He's up there all the time looking at tape. He's been up there already today, despite the fact that it's his day off, which by the way we gave all the players the day off today. He was in there at his regular time. He has a day off from required stuff, but still there are things he does on Monday to get ready. He wanted to do them again today.
Q: In what areas has LB Darryl Blackstock improved?
Groh: I'd say in every particular area. He's much stronger on the tight end, of course that has to do with his newfound muscles, too. The improvement in his techniques. He's got a real good sense in his drops, passing lanes, pattern reads, his disguising of his assignments, whether he's dropping off, coming in on the rush, dropping off into the coverage. He's just become much more astute about everything.
Q: Is TB Alvin Pearman the ultimate team player? He seems to adapt to whatever you ask him to do and seems to root for the guys who are trying to take his job. Is he at all unique or are there lots of players like that?
Groh: You better have lots like that. If you don't, then you have a lot of prima donnas. 'I'm not being appreciated, trade me, I'm not getting the ball enough.' I think that's the cancer that all teams have-'me' guys or prima donnas. That's what every coach or team leader is trying to eradicate from the chemistry of the team. That's not to minimize what you say about [Pearman] because he's a very, very good example of that mentality.
Q: Why did you give the players a day off today? Is it a reward or refocus point? It seems like it might be an effective way to break up the monotony.
Groh: A little bit of everything. I thought it would be good for the players at this particular time. It gives them a chance to get away for a little bit and come back in tomorrow refreshed. Get away from football for a little bit and plus not have to work today. Maybe this time in the season we're always thinking about trying to keep the team fresh, and everything is aimed toward Saturday. If this will give us a little break in here and have a little more energy, have our legs underneath us a little better. Then the next two weeks will be taken care of because we have that Thursday game [vs. Maryland on Nov. 13], so we'll have more time to get ready for one and a little more time to get ready for the succeeding one so that will take care of those. I thought this was a critical week to try to make sure the team was fresh.
Q: Can you talk about the progression of your receiving corps throughout the season?
Groh: I think they've sorted themselves out. There are some spots where I'd like to see an accelerated progression or accelerated consistency if the progression of the skills has been there. I'd like to see more consistency in those things, but I think [Ottowa] Anderson and [Ryan] Sawyer certainly have sorted themselves out to the top of the heap right now.
Both of them now have a whole lot more starts than they ever had before, even though they've had considerable game action. Probably it's more a result of that than anything. From that, they've performed. Their confidence in themselves is up. They've been called upon to do most everything now that they could ever be called upon to do, so I think their confidence level in being able to step up to do those jobs is probably at its best.
Q: N.C. State WR Jerricho Cotchery has caught 50 passes this season, but he's also averaging 17 yards per reception. What kind of season do you see him having?
Groh: He's one of the top receivers in the league. [Florida State's Craphonso] Thorpe's a different kind of receiver than anybody else, obviously, being the 100 and 200-meter dash champion. He can do something faster than anybody else in the league can. Outside of that, there's a small group behind him-[Jonathan] Smith at Georgia Tech, [Jerricho] Cotchery and a couple others that I think are really outstanding receivers. He showed me everything I need to remember last year when we played them. I thought he was excellent.
Q: What do you tell the guys about the ACC horse race coming up?
Groh: I tell them the final stretch is on. That's about all we talk in terms of the big picture-the final stretch is on. It will be four weeks of much the same. Actually, it started last week. There's a way to go about doing that. All the teams are in the same circumstance, we're just focusing on this particular one. That's how you play playoff ball. That's different than fantasy football. If this happens ,then that happens. Then if that happens, then this happens and then all of a sudden it's Christmas. The only thing that counts is what happens in between the lines.